ISLAMABAD: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), one of the oldest and most respected rights bodies in the country, on Wednesday called on the government not to try civilians who were involved in recent anti-government protests before military courts and opposed a ban on the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of ex-premier Imran Khan.
A wave of violence engulfed Pakistan following the dramatic arrest of Khan from a courtroom in Islamabad earlier this month. Angry Khan supporters torched buildings and vehicles and attacked police and military personnel and facilities. Khan was later released on bail but the Pakistani army and government later announced they would try “the arsonists” involved in the violent protests under military laws.
Since then, dozens of suspects have been handed over to the military for trials and on Tuesday, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said Khan, as an “instigator” of the violence, would also be tried under army laws.
Military trials in Pakistan are usually held behind closed doors, depriving civilians of some of their basic rights, including contracting a lawyer of their choice.
“The trial of civilians in the military courts is totally unjustified,” HRCP chairperson Hina Jilani said at a press conference in Islamabad. “Civilians should be tried in ordinary courts to ensure transparency and fairness in the process.”
“HRCP objects to the arbitrary manner in which certain cases are selected to be tried by military courts, thereby violating the principle of equality before the law and equal protection of the law,” she said.
Since May 9, the government has also said it was considering banning Khan’s PTI party.
“We consider any step by the government to ban the PTI both reckless and disproportionate,” Jilani said. “In the long term, it would strengthen a bad precedent and prevent political parties from developing naturally in line with the wishes of their electorate.”
Khan, a former international cricket star, became prime minister in 2018 with the tacit support of the military, though both sides denied it at the time. He later fell out with generals and was ousted as prime minister after losing a parliamentary confidence vote in 2022.
Khan has since then been campaigning for a snap election, with rallies with his supporters across the country, but the prime minister who replaced him, Shahbaz Sharif, has rejected the call for an election before it is due in October this year.
HRCP said national elections should “under no circumstances” be delayed beyond October 2023.
“Such a step by the government would amount to derailing the democratic process and compound the current political instability,” Jilani said. “Anything less than free, fair and credible elections in an environment that allows the exercise of all fundamental freedoms will leave the country open to further ill-judged and undemocratic political experiments.”
The continuing political turmoil has exacerbated Pakistan’s economic crisis with inflation at record highs, growth is anemic amid fears of a sovereign default on external debts unless the International Monetary Fund (IMF) unlocks delayed disbursements.